Fears of the Fearless FDR: A President’s Superstitions for Friday the 13th

Franklin Delano Roosevelt / Herman Perlman / Tempera and gouache on board, 1935 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the artist

In one of the most memorable moments of his political career, Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” However, the man who led America through two of the greatest challenges our country has faced—the Great Depression and World War II—was not without “fear itself.”

Roosevelt, whose “fireside chats” were moments in which he reassured and comforted and informed America, was afraid of fire. In No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes:

Outside Roosevelt's door, which he refused to lock at night as previous presidents had done, Secret Service men patrolled the corridor, alerting the guardroom to the slightest hint of movement. The refusal to lock his door was related to the president's dread of fire, which surpassed his fear of assassination or anything else. The fear seems to have been rooted in his childhood, when, as a small boy, he had seen his young aunt, Laura, race down the stairs, screaming, her body and clothes aflame from an accident with an alcohol lamp.

Goodwin goes on to describe how the president, a man struck down by polio in his thirties, would practice escaping from fires by “dropping from his bed or chair and then crawling to the door.”

Interestingly, FDR also had a mild case of triskaidekaphobia. From the Greek tris/three + kai/and + deka/ten + phobos/fear, our thirty-second president disliked the number thirteen. Journalist and Roosevelt biographer John Gunther wrote, “Like most people with good luck, FDR was moderately—not excessively—superstitious. He hated Friday the thirteenth, he would never start an important trip on a Friday if he could help it, and he disliked sitting down with thirteen at dinner.”

The president's fears, however, were greatly misplaced, and Friday the thirteenth bore him no ill. Franklin D. Roosevelt died on Thursday, April 12, 1945.

- Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery


Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Gunther, John. Roosevelt in Retrospect: A Profile in History. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950.